I started college during the Great Recession, and I admittedly wasn’t very tuned in to politics or financial markets at the time. In the years leading up to that crisis and the recovery afterward, I was mostly focused on paying my bills and trying to graduate without going into debt.
Now I’m a full-fledged adult, and the news keeps yelling that we might be on the brink of another economic disaster fueled by high inflation and looming war in Europe. Strangely, though, I’m feeling quite calm. Not because I think everything is perfectly fine with the global economy, but because I’ve recently gained some insight on the ways Americans have historically ended up in financial ruin during times of uncertainty and change — and none of them really apply to me.
I wasn’t expecting to find that empowerment in a book about the “misunderstood American virtue” of cheapness, but I did.
The reason I picked up Lauren Weber’s In Cheap We Trust from my local library was because I myself have been called “cheap” a time or two, and I was drawn to her lighthearted explanations of why some people are more frugal than others.
Its introduction was welcoming and fun, but I don’t think either Lauren (Weber nor myself) was expecting the book to give me a whole new perspective on my own financial worst-case scenario.
Letting the Past Be My Guide
In Cheap We Trust retells the history of our nation from a financial point of view — one I don’t remember being taught in any class.
While I never forgot the scenes illustrated in textbooks about the Great Depression, I also never realized that the reason so many middle-class Americans were so deeply affected was because of their high personal debt leading into the crisis.
In fact, right before both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of the late 2000s, people were euphoric — racking up big loan balances to finance luxury items and speculative investments.
I used to look at economic crashes as scary, unpredictable events that I had no control over and no way to defend against — and that always freaked me out. So much of what I’d heard made it seem like these financial crises impacted everyone the same, regardless of their money situation.
In Cheap We Trust made me realize that, while crashes aren’t fun for anyone, the people who were truly wiped out during these events were those who put themselves in precarious positions with leverage (like big mortgages and margin loans), or towering mountains of credit card debt.
When I learned that an overextension of credit (and a tendency to overspend) was what bankrupted so many people in the past, I had an epiphany: I probably would have been fine during our history’s worst economic meltdowns, because I’ve always kept my expenses low (even during good times) and avoided debt altogether. It’s an unstoppable combination that can help you ride out almost anything!
I mean, think about it — if you’re able to live happily on very little, you need very little to get by. You save faster, and you have no reason to borrow money in the first place.
So, even in years of economic shrinkage, you’ll have: 1) the peace of mind that comes from knowing you don’t need to make much money to cover your living expenses, 2) a huge buffer of cash from all the savings you’ve been accumulating in years of abundance, and 3) no debt to repay.
Of course, the stock and real estate markets took a temporary nosedive during past crashes. And yeah, a lot of my personal wealth is in high-risk assets, like stocks and real estate, so I’d certainly be affected in that way. But being a long-term investor with zero leverage in my portfolio means I should easily be able to stay afloat and see them recover after a big dip.
Qualities of a Cheap Person
In addition to diving deep into our country’s history, In Cheap We Trust details the habits of a few Americans who have opted out of the debt-driven, consumerist trap.
Some of Lauren Weber’s commentary about frugality was so spot-on that I actually laughed out loud a couple of times, seeing pieces of myself in the people she describes. But I also found myself shaking my head just as often.
The second half of In Cheap We Trust describes two distinct cheapskate personalities that basically boil down to “Type A” and “Type B” tightwads. And I was a little surprised to find out that I didn’t identify with either one of them.
If you’re Type A, you’re obsessed with money — how it flows into and, more importantly, out of your life. You can only buy something if it fits your meticulously organized budget, and you strictly stick to the plan without exception. Some Type A folks also tend to hold tightly onto every cent, spending so little they sometimes live a miserly existence.
Lots of people assume this is what it means to live a life of low consumption, but it’s so far off base. Once you’ve done the basic, up-front work of forming good financial habits (keeping low expenses, making more money, saving and investing the difference), there’s no need to worry about earmarking every dollar. You’re set up for automatic financial success, without stress.
Now, if you’re a Type B penny-pincher, living frugally is an absolute must because there’s not enough money to go around. You’re a free spirit who wants to believe that money can’t buy happiness, so you don’t think about your finances at all.
But in an attempt to make money less important in your life, you inadvertently make your whole life revolve around cheapness to help you make it to your next pay day. Hence the chapter on dumpster diving.
Most of the book’s interviewees who could be categorized as Type B tended toward more subversive lifestyles. Nothing is wrong with bucking tradition, but you don’t have to give up every part of a normal life in an attempt to cut your expenses.
What both of these frugal archetypes get wrong is the idea that financial freedom involves some sort of tradeoff. Society (and perhaps the author of this book) would have you believe that you must either be a financially responsible beancounter who never has any fun, a hippie who eats from the trash, or a regular American who works full-time from age 20 to 65.
But the truth is that you’re not giving anything up when you spend less by cutting unnecessary waste out of your life. In reality, it just doesn’t cost that much to be happy. You buy what you need, skip the rest, and spend several decades less at work. If you don’t see your brand of frugality as a win-win, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The Real Reason for Cheap
In Cheap We Trust starts by doing a good job presenting history in a fairly objective way that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Personally, that allowed me to gain some insight on my own risk tolerance.
I was happy to find that the book also shared a lot of different perspectives on frugal living. But it ended up falling into the same trap as most media when it comes to reporting on non-mainstream ideas: The author improperly used fringe examples as tent poles for frugal lifestyles.
That said, I did appreciate the link that Lauren Weber demonstrated between frugality, minimalism, and sustainability. There’s even a paragraph about the financial and ecological benefits of biking!
But, while she stresses environmentalism as a good reason to buy less stuff, she doesn’t go quite far enough in showcasing how valuable buying less stuff is for other reasons — like making your own life more enjoyable.
To be fair, this book was published before the whole Marie Kondo obsession and even before the FIRE movement took off, so maybe there weren’t as many examples of people truly enjoying a life of less back then. When you’re perfectly happy to own fewer possessions, making the choice not to buy them in the first place isn’t a sacrifice at all.
The idea that there’s a bigger purpose to being cheap — that it gets you freer, faster — was completely missing from the pages of In Cheap We Trust. Being content while living frugally sets you up to get super rich, super fast — without having to obsess about money along the way.
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